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FRESH SURFACE WATER – Vol.

I - Origin, Resources and Distribution of Rivers and Streams -


I.A.Shiklomanov ©Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS) ORIGIN, RESOURCES AND
DISTRIBUTION OF RIVERS AND STREAMS I.A.Shiklomanov Director State Hydrological Institute, St.
Petersburg, Russia Keywords: River systems, climate, precipitation, river runoff, renewable water
resources, water use, hydrological network, continent, irrigation, reservoirs, relief, geological structure,
land use, atmospheric circulation, carbon dioxide, hydrological characteristics, losses, dynamics,
assessment, natural-economic regions, ocean, country. Contents 1. Introduction 2. Origin and Evolution
of River Systems 3. Factors Determining the Evolution of the Contemporary Hydrographic Network and
River Runoff Regime 3.1. Climate Factors 3.2. Factors of the Underlying Surface 3.3. Human Activities 4.
Studies of River Systems and Renewable Water Resources 4.1. Hydrological Network 4.2.
Methodological approaches to the assessment of dynamics of river runoff and its use 5. River Runoff:
Distribution over Area and Variations in Time 5.1. Large river systems and natural-economic regions 5.2.
Continents 5.3. Selected Countries 6. The Dynamics of Water Use in the World 7. Renewable Water
Resources and Water Withdrawals 8. Conclusion Glossary Bibliography Biographical Sketch Summary
River systems are of the utmost importance for Nature and people, being the main source of fresh water
supply. The origin and evolution of river systems took place during the geological history of the Earth
under the effects of tectonic and volcanic processes and changes in the global climate. The present
configuration of the hydrographic network on the Earth was formed about 10,000 years ago after the
last glacial epoch. Areal distribution of contemporary river systems, their quantitative characteristics
and time changes are determined by a number of physiographic factors and human impact. UNESCO –
EOLSS SAMPLE CHAPTERS FRESH SURFACE WATER – Vol. I - Origin, Resources and Distribution of Rivers
and Streams - I.A.Shiklomanov ©Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS) The hydrological network
contains many hydrological stations where water levels and discharges are regularly measured in rivers,
lakes and reservoirs. The data from this network is very important for studying the regimes of water
bodies, and for estimation of water resources and their change due to human impact. The world
hydrological network data, as well as data on water use and socio-economic development of different
countries of the world, have been used by scientists of the State Hydrological Institute (SHI, St.
Petersburg, Russia) for assessment of river runoff dynamics and characteristics of past, present and
future fresh water use on a global scale. Analysis and quantitative assessments have been made for the
largest river systems, selected countries, all continents and natural-economic regions of the world. The
present paper contains information on the global scale; data on river systems on particular continents
are given in other chapters of EOLSS. 1. Introduction The system of permanent and temporary
watercourse (rivers, streams and brooks) forms a hydrographic network on the land surface. According
to the slope of the Earth’s surface, this network is distributed among the largest waterways discharging
to oceans, seas or endorheic lakes. The combination of all rivers and streams discharging to a main
watercourse forms a river system. This can cover a vast area of hundreds of thousands and even millions
of square kilometers. In fact, most of the land surface of our planet comprises a combination of river
systems with permanent or temporary hydrographic network penetrating into the whole surface of the
Earth, rather like the human blood circulatory system, and discharging fresh water from rains and snow
or ice melt to the World Ocean. River systems and the hydrographic network in general are of a great
importance for nature and human life, providing people with fresh water for their activities. The spatial
distribution of river systems, their quantitative characteristics and temporal changes in any region of the
world depend on a range of physiographic factors (including climatic factors) and the effect of human
activity. The present article describes characteristics of river systems, their variations in time and over
area under the effect of physiographic and anthropogenic factors on a global scale. More detailed
information on each continent of the Earth is given in other chapters within this Topic of EOLSS. 2. Origin
and Evolution of River Systems The history of origin of rivers on the Earth is very long. Water on the
planet appeared during the Archaen era about 4 to 5 billion years ago. According to the most commonly
held viewpoint, the Earth’s hydrosphere is the result of gaseous emission out of the solid envelope
(mantle) of the Earth. About 500 million years ago the hydrosphere volume equaled more than 90% of
its present volume. Great volumes of water were concentrated not only in oceans but in glacier shields,
in large sea basins, lakes and swamps, in aquifers and in river systems during past geological epochs.
UNESCO – EOLSS SAMPLE CHAPTERS FRESH SURFACE WATER – Vol. I - Origin, Resources and Distribution
of Rivers and Streams - I.A.Shiklomanov ©Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS) Formation of
terrestrial hydrography, and origination and evolution of rivers systems in particular, was mainly
determined by changes caused by the effect of tectonic and volcanic processes on relief formation,
including appearance and evolution of continents, as well as seas and lakes on the continents.
Formation of the hydrographic network was affected by changes in climate, water exchange and soil
erosion under the influence of solar radiation on the Earth’s surface. During their evolution in different
geological epochs, the river systems had various configurations and different hydrological
characteristics. We do not have much reliable information about evolution of the river network on the
continents during the geological past. Appropriate approximate assessments for individual past epochs
are usually made by analyzing the remains of ancient river valleys and different types of deposits, such
as continental pebbles and sands of marine, lake and river origin. An intensive period of erosion caused
by surface waters was initiated about 4 billion years ago when individual land masses (the primary
continents) were formed. Most traces of the primary watercourses and lakes, however, on the primary
continents disappeared as a result of erosion, tectonic and volcanic activities, and repeated oceanic
transgressions. Little evidence has been found for surface water activity on land before the period of
one thousand million years ago. Some information about evolution of river systems since that time in
different regions of the world is given in Origin and Evolution of River Systems. Data on paleoclimate
reconstructions have been widely applied for description of the hydrographic network distribution and
even for quantitative assessment of hydrological regimes of particular water bodies during the
Quaternary geological period, the beginning of which is usually related to the time of 1.5 to 2.5 million
years ago (Pleistocene). Most assessments were obtained for the territory of Eurasia (see Origin and
Evolution of River Systems). It should be noted that the Pleistocene period was characterized by total
climate cooling on Earth and by periodic glaciations at temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere.
Evolution of the river network, and formation of lakes and water resources in these regions, are closely
connected with glaciation processes. It has been established that the last glacial epoch began about 115
000 years ago and lasted for more than 100 000 years. Initially, the glaciation was not too intensive, with
frequent intervals. The most intensive cooling and thickest ice cover in polar regions and at temperate
latitudes of the northern hemisphere, as well as glacier formation in mountain areas, began about 50
000 years ago; the glacier coverage was most extensive before the 18th millenium B.C. At that time
glacier coverage in the northern hemisphere extended to 50-60o N and its maximum thickness was 2500
m. During that period glaciers in the mountains in southern areas of the Earth, including in subtropical
zones, occupied very large areas; the lower boundaries of glaciers were 1 to 2.5 km lower than their
present position. During the subsequent millennia, when climate warming began on Earth, the ice cover
on the continents and glaciers in mountains began to melt. Most intensive melting occurred during the
period of 16 to 13 thousand years ago and it was completed about 7000 years ago. Ice coverage
extension and melting caused a fundamental change in the hydrographic network over a vast land area.
During the post- UNESCO – EOLSS SAMPLE CHAPTERS FRESH SURFACE WATER – Vol. I - Origin, Resources
and Distribution of Rivers and Streams - I.A.Shiklomanov ©Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS)
glacial period (Holocene), i.e. during the last 7 to 10 thousand years, the hydrographic network on our
planet did not suffer great changes and its configuration has been similar to the contemporary one. 3.
Factors Determining Evolution of the Contemporary Hydrographic Network and River Runoff Regime
The contemporary evolution of the hydrographic network and river runoff regime is explained by a
complicated interaction between physiographic factors and human activity. Physiographic factors may
be combined into two basic groups: • meteorological or climate factors, i.e. mainly precipitation, solar
radiation, air temperature and humidity; • factors of the underlying surface of the watershed, i.e. relief,
geological structure, soils and vegetation, lakes and swamps, watershed area and configuration, river
length and slope. Factors of human activity are also variable and comprise different impacts on the
hydrographic network, on watershed surface and river runoff characteristics. In considering the
dependence of the condition of the hydrographic network and river runoff regime on various factors, it
should be taken into account that the rate and opportunity of these factors on different phases and
characteristics of river regime (annual runoff, streamflow distribution during a year, maximum and
minimum water discharges, etc.) may differ greatly. 3.1. Climate Factors Solar radiation (and in
particular the radiation balance at the Earth’s surface) is the main factor which determines water
circulation on the planet and the climate situation in any region. The solar radiation onto the Earth’s
surface is characterized by a clear latitudinal distribution: maximum values of radiation balance are
observed at the equator and tropical latitudes; northward and southward these values decrease rapidly.
For example, at 60-70o N the radiation balance values are 5-6 times lower than those on the equator.
Non-uniform warming of the Earth’s surface because of variation in inflow of solar radiation with
latitude, and different conditions of solar radiation absorption by different types of surface, explains the
origin of large-scale air fluxes and atmospheric circulation. The greatest contrasts arise between land
and ocean subject to seasonal and latitudinal changes, and between surfaces covered with ice/snow and
bare surfaces. Latitudinal differences in solar energy inflow and contrasts between ocean and land and
polar ice at the Earth’s rotation ultimately explain the fields of atmospheric pressure, large-scale
transportation of air fluxes, energy and water vapor. Air fluxes resulting from atmospheric circulation
transport water vapor over long distances; when moving around high mountain massifs, these fluxes
cause large-scale UNESCO – EOLSS SAMPLE CHAPTERS FRESH SURFACE WATER – Vol. I - Origin,
Resources and Distribution of Rivers and Streams - I.A.Shiklomanov ©Encyclopedia of Life Support
Systems (EOLSS) vertical movements causing water vapor to rise to the upper part of the troposphere
and produce precipitation. They also explain the uneven fall of precipitation in time and space. The
processes of atmospheric circulation are not stable, both at the global scale and for particular regions.
Air mass transportation along latitudes is overlapped by meridional movements, thus producing
circulation zones that change by seasons; they are also affected by changes in the conditions of the
Earth’s surface. The atmospheric circulation is greatly affected by processes in the World Ocean, by
factors of solar activity and by different cosmic factors. Therefore, atmospheric circulation and
precipitation are subject to great time-space changes. On a small scale (small areas and short time
intervals) this produces extreme meteorological situations, i.e. maximum or minimum precipitation,
severe storms and floods, or very low streamflow. On a large time scale the processes of atmospheric
circulation explain climate variation over a large areas, e.g. wet years (or periods) alternating with dry
years (or periods). According to the studies made in recent decades, atmospheric circulation processes,
and consequently climate conditions, greatly depend on human impact that has changed the gas
content of the atmosphere by increasing concentrations of CO2 and other gases emitted during
combustion of organic fuels and development of certain industries. Total annual precipitation onto land
(without Antarctica) is about 116 700 km3 , which equates to a water layer 864 mm deep evenly
distributed all over the land surface. Maximum precipitation (on average about 1600 mm) is observed
on the territory of South America; minimum precipitation (only 456 mm) falls on Australia. Mean
average precipitation onto the territories of the other continents varies from 740 to 790 mm.
Considering precipitation distribution over latitudinal zones, it should be noted that maximum
precipitation (about 1900 mm) occurs in the equatorial zone within 10o N and 10o S. Northward of the
equator, where most land area is located, the precipitation layer tends towards a regular decrease;
mean precipitation in the zone between 40o N and 60o N is about 675 mm. These values of precipitation
have been averaged for large areas. Annual precipitation on the territory of each continent and within
each latitudinal zone is distributed extremely unevenly. As a whole for the territory of our planet, the
mean annual precipitation varies within very wide limits, i.e. from 5 to 25 mm (deserts on different
continents) to 11 000 mm (southern slopes of the Himalayas). A very uneven distribution of
precipitation occurs on each continent. This uneven distribution of precipitation over the land area on
our planet mainly explains the extremely uneven spatial distribution of streamflow. The most moistened
regions of the Earth have the most developed hydrographic networks and highest values of annual river
runoff (renewable water resources). In deserts where precipitation fall may not occur for several years,
the permanent hydrographic network is practically missing and river runoff is about zero. Precipitation is
the main climate factor affecting streamflow formation; nevertheless, there are some other climate
factors affecting to a certain extent the amount and regime UNESCO – EOLSS SAMPLE CHAPTERS FRESH
SURFACE WATER – Vol. I - Origin, Resources and Distribution of Rivers and Streams - I.A.Shiklomanov
©Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS) of river runoff, streamflow distribution during a year and
extreme runoff characteristics. These are air temperature, air humidity and wind velocity, which
determine evaporation values, thus affecting different characteristics of river runoff and water
resources. This effect is particularly great in regions of water deficit and during hot and dry seasons in
the regions of temperate climate when precipitation may be completely lost to evaporation. Thus,
streamflow characteristics, annual or seasonal runoff in particular, depend on the ratio between
precipitation and evaporation, which is expressed by the so-called aridity index. The regions of excessive
and sufficient water amount where the aridity index is small are characterized by the greatest river
runoff volumes. In such regions precipitation is the main factor determining runoff space-time variation.
Regions with dry and hot climates and a high aridity index are characterized by very small runoff values
and, as a rule, by great runoff variability in time and space. It should be noted that in some
physiographic conditions the air temperature affects the amount and distribution of streamflow not
only indirectly via evaporation but directly, too, e.g. during melting of ice and snow cover. This is typical
of regions where a high proportion of annual precipitation is snow and it is accumulated during the cold
season; it is also typical of high mountain areas where rivers are recharged by melting glaciers. In these
regions air temperature variations directly affect snow and ice melting, and as a result, affect
streamflow variations during a year and its extreme characteristics. Nevertheless, the total values of
annual runoff in these regions mainly depend on the annual precipitation. As noted above, precipitation
and air temperature are subject to great time-space changes. If they are estimated on average for a
large area and for a long-term period, however, these values are rather stable and characterize the
natural climate condition of particular regions. A rather stable value of the natural streamflow
corresponds to this climate condition. All present and future assessments of climate, runoff, water
resources and water use characteristics are based on the assumption of stability or sustainability of
climate and river runoff. Studies by climatologists, however, made since the early 1990s have proved
quite convincingly that the hypothesis about climate stability under present conditions is not correct.
This is explained by human activity and by ever-growing combustion of fossil fuels resulting in higher
carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere, global air temperature rise, and change in
atmospheric circulation, precipitation regime and runoff characteristics [see: Anthropogenic Effects on
the Hydrological Cycle]. According to the available prognostic assessments, the air temperature by the
end of the twenty-first century may be by 2.0 to 3.0 o C higher; moreover, in high and middle latitudes a
warming of 6-8 o C may be expected. It is also possible to expect precipitation change during the cold
and warm seasons. As for particular regions, long-range forecasts of anthropogenic climate change
(precipitation in particular) have many uncertainties both concerning the scale of change and timing of
occurrence. Nevertheless, it is evident that these changes will be significant and may greatly affect the
river systems, river runoff regime, and characteristics of fresh water use. In many UNESCO – EOLSS
SAMPLE CHAPTERS FRESH SURFACE WATER – Vol. I - Origin, Resources and Distribution of Rivers and
Streams - I.A.Shiklomanov ©Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS) regions, and the arid and
semi-arid ones in particular, which are especially vulnerable even to a slight climate change, the results
of global warming may be extremely adverse. Taking this into account, development of reliable forecasts
of anthropogenic climate change, assessment of these results in relation to river runoff regime, water
resources and water use, development of a number of projects for future mitigation of possible negative
effects, and adaptation to these effects, are vitally important and urgent problems for contemporary
hydrometeorological science. It should also be noted that the above possible great anthropogenic
climate change refers to the semi-distant future, i.e. to the end of the twenty-first century. According to
the available assessments, climate change during the next two or three decades is not so great (a global
air temperature rise of 0.5 to 0.6 o C is predicted). Taking this into account, and noting the great
uncertainty of the present prognostic assessments of the change in regional climate characteristics,
when computing water resources and water availability in the world for the next 10 to 20 years, it is
quite possible to use the present climate data based on long-term observations. 3.2. Factors of the
Underlying Surface The factors of the underlying surface affect river systems in different ways. As noted
above, the amount of renewable water resources or river runoff on large territories mainly depends on
the climate conditions determining the amount of precipitation and evaporation. Specific features of the
underlying surface of river basins in this case are displayed by the effect of these features on
precipitation and evaporation. For example, elevated areas (highlands) in basins lead to higher
precipitation, and, consequently, to greater river runoff if compared with flat river basins in similar
climate condition. On the other hand, large lakes, and temporary overflows of rivers over vast areas in
arid climate conditions, cause intensive evaporation, and, consequently, lead to decreased river runoff if
compared to river basins in a similar climate without large water areas. The factors of the underlying
surface greatly affect the hydrographic network structure, extreme characteristics of river runoff and, to
a lesser extent, streamflow distribution during a year. Geological structure and relief are the most stable
characteristics of any river basin. They determine to a great extent the general structure and density of
the hydrographic network, river slopes and surface-subsurface water interaction. The hydrographic
network density in a mountain river basin is higher, river slopes are steeper and, consequently, water
flow velocities are higher; this explains intensive and short-term floods caused by rainfall. On flat
watersheds the river slopes are gentle; closed depressions filled with water during floods are often
observed in such terrain. Water outflow from such watersheds is difficult; maximum water discharges
are small; most precipitation is accumulated on the watershed and it is later lost to evaporation. Specific
conditions of the hydrographic network and runoff regime formation are observed in so-called “karst”
regions where large areas are occupied by soluble rocks UNESCO – EOLSS SAMPLE CHAPTERS FRESH
SURFACE WATER – Vol. I - Origin, Resources and Distribution of Rivers and Streams - I.A.Shiklomanov
©Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS) (limestone, gypsum, rock-salt, etc.) and a range of
different cavities, caves, subsurface lakes and streams occur. Karst regions are characterized by specific
conditions of surface and subsurface water interaction. The river network is not permanent because
precipitation disappears to subsurface cavities and discharges to large rivers as subsurface flow. Spring
snowmelt and rainfall floods are not well expressed in rivers in karst regions; higher runoff, however, is
observed during periods of low surface water discharge in ordinary rivers in the same climate zone. Soils
and plants affect river runoff primarily by precipitation loss to evaporation, and, secondarily, by
precipitation overflow and infiltration losses. In general, different plant species are characterized by
different evaporation rates and create different conditions for runoff formation. For example, in forests
a high proportion of surface runoff percolates into the ground and becomes subsurface runoff due to
the high infiltration capacity of forest soils and leaf litter. As a result, runoff from forested areas, as
compared with open ground, is more uniform, and usually forested watersheds are characterized by
lower maximum and higher minimum water discharges. The effect of forests on river runoff is most
significant in regions where a major portion of the precipitation is snow; it melts in spring to produce a
spring snowmelt flood. This effect on river runoff is produced not because of greater melt water
infiltration but as a result of different accumulation rates of snow on forested and bare localities, as well
as by delay of snow melt in forests. The effect of lakes on river runoff is different. Annual river runoff in
lacustrine areas tends to be lower because of higher evaporation losses from water surfaces than from
land. This is extremely important for arid and semi-arid regions where evaporation from water surfaces
greatly exceeds evaporation from land. As for humid regions, evaporation from the water surface and
from land is about the same and the effect of lakes on annual river runoff is insignificant. The effect of
lakes on uniform streamflow distribution during a year is great; it occurs